HandlingThe E-PL1 was a big hunk of low-end plastic that although well assembled, wasn't all that pleasant to touch or handle. Olympus has obviously been back to the drawing board, since the Pen E-PL2 is a much more attractive camera. Its grip handle has a nice rubber coating and the boxy buttons have been replaced by sleeker round buttons.
The controls have also been reworked, with a vertical line of buttons and, more importantly, a click-round wheel around the four-way controller. This makes it much quicker to adjust settings, and the custom menu even lets you choose which way round the wheel goes. However, your custom setting won't be taken into account in certain sections of the interface, notably the simplified Auto mode section (see sidebar).
The E-PL2 has been treated to a new screen with twice the definition of the E-PL1 display, which naturally makes it much more pleasant to use. That said, there's still room for improvement as the default colours have a clear blue tinge (particularly in dark greys, but this can be adjusted fairly easily in the camera's screen settings) and the excessive contrast drowns out details in shadows or very bright areas. Colour reproduction isn't all that accurate either, with a deltaE of around 7 no matter what screen settings you use.
On the whole, the PL2 is much nicer to handle than the PL1. It's not quite good enough to warrant a fifth star in this category though, mainly due to the rather confusing menus. However, progress has clearly been made.
ResponsivenessThe E-PL2 is slightly faster than its predecessor. It's nothing revolutionary compared to the latest Panasonic micro four-thirds cameras (which can process 120 fps instead of 60 fps while focusing), but the PL2 still holds its own. Generally speaking, it won't hold you back or slow you down, but for continuous focusing in burst mode, SLRs can still do much better.
Picture QualityCan picture quality really be improved that much without upgrading the sensor? Probably not. However, Olympus has definitely reworked its image processing system to improve noise levels at high ISO settings.
One rather puzzling change is that the lowest ISO setting is now 200 ISO rather than 100 ISO. That may not look particularly important, but it could prove problematic in situations when there's a lot of light and you want to stay at a high aperture setting or capture the blur of a moving subject.
Much progress has been made in the field of noise control. The 1600 ISO setting can be used without too many second thoughts and the 3200 ISO setting gives 4" x 6" (10 x 15 cm) prints or full-screen pictures that are perfectly clear. The latest APS sensor can do better still (with around one value to be gained in usability), but the E-PL2 has certainly caught up with other small micro four-thirds cameras.
This second version of the 14-42 mm lens is lighter and even more compact than the first version. In theory, that shouldn't have any impact on picture quality, but our test model took photos that were noticeably less sharp, particularly at the longest focal length. For day-to-day use that won't be too serious, as 8" x 10" (20 x 27 cm) prints are still impeccable, but anyone who often crops photos would benefit from a more accurate lens. That said, such users generally seek out long focal lengths and are more likely to invest in a Zuiko 75-300 mm or Lumix 45-200 mm lens.
VideoThe current trend is for Full HD video in the AVC/H.264 format with stereo sound but—then again—Olympus Pen cameras don't exactly do 'trendy'.
The E-PL2 has a 720p HD video mode with good picture quality but with low-fidelity mono sound. Files are recoded in the Mjpeg format which, although can be easily handled by ageing computers, has a quality-to-file-size ratio that's largely outdated. The continuous autofocus is sometimes a little slow off the mark, particularly after a change in focal length. If that happens, a half-press on the shutter-release button soon gets things moving again.